Olivia Parker
Aug 20, 2018

Can these ambitious marketing students prove their degree was worth it?

While industry-specific degrees give some people more confidence, others conclude that early hands-on experience is a lot more valuable.

Clockwise from top left: Avril Choo, Kirana Srianjani, Regine Teo Yi Xuan, Devika Kulkarni, Ang Zheng Shun, Sravya Malineni
Clockwise from top left: Avril Choo, Kirana Srianjani, Regine Teo Yi Xuan, Devika Kulkarni, Ang Zheng Shun, Sravya Malineni

As we’ve learned over the course of our special series this month, opinions are divided about the value of taking a marketing degree at university. We know that many top marketers have never studied the theory of their profession in an academic environment; and that many professors teaching marketing at the universities have never worked on the ground in the industry. We’ve also found that there’s much variation between the different marketing degrees on offer around Asia. And both recruiters and agency heads to whom we spoke agreed that graduates with hard skills and degrees in subjects other than marketing, which one recruiter called “fluffy”, might, in some instances, have the edge over those who have taken it as their core subject.

So what is the view of Asia’s marketing students themselves? Young and enthusiastic with big plans for their future careers, the undergraduates interviewed by Campaign Asia-Pacific speak of their degree courses—and the discipline of marketing itself—in lofty terms.

“I like how marketing is not just about bringing a business to greater heights, but also about understanding the diverse markets, different behaviours, the consumers and also the environment leading marketers to strategise the best marketing form to influence and serve others,” comments Regine Teo Yi Xian, a second year student taking a Bachelor in Business specialising in marketing at Nanyang Technological University (NTU)'s Nanyang Business School in Singapore.

“I’m interested in the intersection between strategy, products and dynamic growth,” says her fellow NTU undergrad Ang Zheng Shun, who is in his final year. “What intrigues me about marketing is its dynamism, that it is not just a single silo of domain knowledge.” Like many in his age group, Ang is turned off by the idea of a “routine-based job”, so it’s easy to see why the multidisciplinary nature of marketing appeals.

Several themes also emerge in the students' description of what they looked for in their courses and universities. Alongside the schools’ reputation, prospective students wanted degrees that would lead to international travel, like the four-year Global Bachelor in Business Administration (GBBA) course offered by ESSEC Business School in Singapore, which includes a stint at the school’s Paris campus. Sravya Malineni, who is halfway through this course, says she is seeking “in-depth knowledge of the global marketplace” and is currently looking for internships in the UAE, Australia and Singapore.

ESSEC Business School in Singapore

Access to on-the-job experience is another element all the students rated as essential in their choice of schools. Ang says one of the main benefits of the course he took at NTU is that it is three years rather than four, which allows students to explore more opportunities to, as he puts it, “bridge the gap between classroom knowledge and real-world application”. Others, like Teo, have taken a leave of absence during their course to fit in extra experience.

Kirana Srianjani, who graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in international marketing from BiNus university in Jakarta and is now a digital account executive at Reprise Digital, did two six-month internships during her four year course, one at a crowdsourcing design firm and the other at a financial technology company. She says she's the only one among her colleagues at Reprise with an academic background in marketing and she's glad to have it: it has helped her understand how to deal with people, understand operational weaknesses and become a "forthright analyst". 

But while Teo says her degree “definitely gave me an edge” against her cohort who didn’t study marketing, she admits that in today’s working landscape, internships or work experience are “so much more essential” in getting jobs upon graduation. Ang agrees: “technical knowledge and skills are important, but they can be trained on the job”.

Providing a perspective on this from a greater height, as it were, are two recent graduates from NTU’s Master of Science in Marketing and Consumer Insight programme. Neither studied marketing at undergraduate level and both have been employed in the industry for some time, taking a break to pursue further studies. Ambili Makkath Nair is risk marketing leader APAC at risk management firm SAI Global, and says she took the master’s to “continually expand my knowledge base and learning in the field I was passionate about”. It has already added “tremendous value” to her career, she says.

“It taught me to look at things differently. When I now approach an issue or a project I am aware of the data that needs to be looked at, how it is collected/arrived at, how to read and interpret it to effect the change I need to to achieve my organisational or project goals.” Nair particularly rated part of the programme that dealt with media training in crisis scenarios, calling it “eye-opening”. Nair says a few of her coursemates had previously studied marketing at undergraduate level, but she “didn’t observe any difference” between her knowledge, garnered on the ground, and theirs.

Ambili Makkath Nair (left) and Seyed Nazhath Faheema

Her fellow master's graduate Seyed Nazhath Faheema, who is head of marketing at Millenia Motion Pictures, tempers this view, saying she believes that although she did not take one herself, an undergraduate degree in marketing is “a good head start”: marketing grads, she says, “understand the projects better than marketing professionals who do not have the educational background.” The value of the NTU master's she’s just completed, she says, is that students get the benefit of hearing the various perspectives of other ‘mid-career professionals’ like herself, making for rich class discussions. Faheema believes that adding this extra study mid-career serves as an excellent “break-and-leap”, adding more “scientific” value to the experience she’s gained since joining the industry.

The mid-career marketing master's, then, is a very different beast from the undergraduate marketing degree and seems to offer value that’s much more clearly defined. On the whole, however, the undergraduates Campaign spoke to expressed confidence that they would be able to get jobs upon graduation, although this varied according to which section of the industry they were aiming for. Avril Choo, a third year student studying Accounting and Business (Marketing) at Singapore’s NTU, says she’s heard from senior students that getting graduate trainee places at the big MNCs is getting harder due to limited vacancies and a high volume of applicants. Teo, meanwhile, reports seeing declining numbers of seniors chasing positions at creative agencies as their first career step, with more choosing instead to get into startups, where they think they will gain more experience, faster.

Ang notes, however, that “with the rise of numerous tech companies in Asia (BAT in China, Grab and Garenca in SE Asia), as well as movement into the Asia market (Uber, Airbnb), there is notably an increased demand for marketers with a good grasp of technology and growth-hacking expertise.”

So what do all these ambitious under- and post-graduates see themselves doing in the future? ESSEC undergraduate Malineni is set to complete a master’s degree in marketing next, and hopes to become a professor. She’s unique in that ambition: others state that they want to be brand managers and to work as marketers for some of the world’s biggest, fastest growing firms—“dream companies” like Google and Facebook. Teo makes the revealing comment that if she’s unable to get a job at one such brand, she’d “consider starting off with a creative agency”, but both she and Srianjani state that they’d eventually like to own their own businesses one day. Just one person, Ang Zheng Shun, appears ambivalent about the prospect of staying in the industry, saying he will “possibly” think of working in a marketing role when he graduates and might consider going down a consulting or digital path instead.

Collectively, these under- and post-graduates represent something of an advocacy group for studying marketing, despite the recognition among all that book learning can't replace on-the-ground experience. The common thread that links all their answers is the respect they have for their courses and their faith in the future their learnings will help lead them towards. With the industry they're aiming to join under ever increasing pressure, that's an ambition that only time will bear out. 

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